This one is going to be a doozy. I’ve been holding off writing this post because of the sheer volume it would entail to write. It’s a little daunting, honestly. Up until this dinner the most complicated and involving meal I’ve had was the Hill Farmstead Dinner at Armsby Abbey, and this one is even more lengthy, at an addition 7 more dishes. The overall stats of the meal totalled 18 different dishes, 2 carafes and one bottle of wine and a bottle of lambic. Let’s dive into it.
When I first made our reservation it was early in the evening, but as we worked out some kinks for an extra couple of tickets to the Harvest Festival at Hill Farmstead, Dave and Jill were able to head up with Elise and I the night before and join us for Blackback Pub, Prohibition Pig, and Hen of the Wood. To include the extra couple, our reservation was pushed back to 8:30, which admittedly was a little late for dinner but it gave us time for pre-dinner drinks, and it was no matter, our service was still impeccable even though we were the last table seated (and to leave).
If you’re going to be in Waterbury, have a reasonable amount of notice, and can get a group of three or four people, make a reservation a Hen of the Wood. With four people, you can easily split the four entrees, get a handful of dishes from each section of the menu, and really explore everything they have to offer. We grabbed three to four dishes from each course and kept the libations flowing all night long. By the end of the meal we were absolutely stuffed, but this is without a doubt the best way to experience the meal.
Our meal began with three “Bites”: Sweet corn fritters with dragonfly sugarworks maple syrup, Chioggia beets with basil, pine nuts and Bonnieview feta, Cucumbers and baby fennel with crème fraîche. All of the dishes were superb, but the corn fritters were too good to not get a second order.
We followed up the bites with some starters, including Vermont rabbit liver pate with red onion jam, grilled bread and whole grain mustard, Hen of the Woods mushroom toast with poached farm egg and grilled house bacon, whole day-boat calamari with zucchini, tarragon and smoked chili vinaigrette, and lastly duck sausage and local cornmeal polenta with sunny-side-up duck egg. Let me just say that anything with “liver” or “duck” in the name I’m going to be all over. Surprisingly, the Hen of the Woods mushrooms were great, and I’m not even a mushroom fan. The calamari was a first for me. I was a little taken aback, as I’ve never seen a whole squid presented on a dish like that and calamari really isn’t my thing, but at this point in the meal you just learn to trust that the chefs at Hen of the Wood can do no wrong and whatever ends up on the plate in front of you is going to be amazing.
There were a few sides available so naturally we got all three: Local cornmeal polenta with clothbound cheddar, crispy brussel sprouts with prosciutto and pine nuts, broccoli gratin with herb breadcrumb. At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, I don’t really go out of of my way to eat brussel sprouts but Hen of the Wood does it again, they were extremely flavourful and I would not have hesitated ordering them next time.
By the time we got to dinner, we were loosening our belts and we were running out of space on the table. We made way for plates of goat’s milk dumplings with chanterelles and sweet corn, pine nuts and sage, hook and line haddock with heirloom beans, braised fennel, and hazelnuts, smoked hanger steak with grilled carmen peppers and creme fraiche, and Vermont heritage pork with sweet corn, delicata squash and mustard jus. I can’t stress enough how skilled the Hen of the Wood kitchen staff is. Everything was absolutely perfect.
At this point of the night, we really couldn’t eat any more. There was maybe one or two other tables occupied but otherwise the majority of the restaurant was empty. I asked when we’re expected to clear out and the staff graciously replied we could stay as long as we’d like, and they’d be there as long as we were. Though full, we couldn’t help but try some of the dishes they have on the dessert menu, and after a short break, we ended our meal with vanilla-date pudding, butterscotch and walnut crumble, chocolate brownie cake with mint ice cream, and apple galette with honey-ginger ice cream. And of course I can’t see a bottle of Cantillon on the menu without ordering it, so I grabbed a Vigneronne Lambic with Italian muscat grapes to go with dessert as well. Do I really need to say again that everything was perfect? Can I even say that enough?
Hen of the Wood came highly recommended by several of my Vermont BA friends and even Shaun Hill himself. And of course I did my research before heading up there, and there isn’t a single bad thing out there written about the place. Often times in the reviews it’s referred to as being the finest dining in Vermont and one of the must-visit places before you die, so needless to say it had some lofty expectations to live up to. I’ll admit, it lived up to the hype. The entire experience was absolutely incredible. The food was perfect, the service was outstanding, and the ambiance was extremely well thought out.
This was without a doubt the best meal I’ve ever had. I’ve called Waterbury the beer Mecca of the Northeast before, and have suggested the trip to many of my beer nerd friends. But for those of you that can appreciate fine dining as well, I can’t recommend a visit to Hen of the Wood enough.